How I Got Over*

12 Feb

I left the church when I was 16.

It was not a rational decision.

I guess I should explain.

I was born into a family of believers. My dad’s side of it was pretty lackadaisical, Christmas and Easter Christians. But my mom’s side was very devout. I had two great uncles who were preachers under the National Baptist Convention. One had a tiny congregation in a storefront in West Philly. (He and my great aunt ran a grocery store. The church didn’t bring in much.) The other was a scholarly sort who taught religion at some university. I went to Sunday School every Sunday of my young life,  meeting in the basement and then the annex of Union Baptist Church in Montclair, NJ. I memorized books of the bible. I listened to stories. I sort of cruised along as a young believer. I hated getting up early on Sunday, hated getting dressed up in those dresses and crinoline slips designed to slice open the backs of my thighs as I twitched in the pew. But church was church and Christ was Christ and that was that.

Then my mother died.

My dad had a fight with the minister and we left Union Baptist right after the funeral. He switched us, my sister and me, over to St. Luke’s, an Episcopalian church. He didn’t attend, but he threw a coat over his pajamas and drove us over every Sunday.

If you’ve never attended many churches, you might think they’re all the same. They’re not and I don’t think my dad could have found a bigger contrast than Union Baptist and St. Luke’s. Of the two, I think Union Baptist probably had a larger congregation, but the church was small, with light colored walls and stained glass windows not that much larger than regular windows in a house. St. Luke’s was huge, several linked grey stone buildings, with enormous stained glass windows and high Gothic arches. It was always cold in there, at least in my memory.

St. Luke’s was cooler in other ways as well. Union Baptist, though not as wildly fervent as Pentecostal churches, was an emotional place. Sermons built to cathartic moments. There was a great choir that my aunt sang in for years. I remember it as full of color and sound. St. Luke’s was a high Episcopal church, very stately, lots of measured ritual, with sermons that were appeals to our minds as well as our hearts. The colors there were ecclesiastical garments against cold stone, rather than the brilliant hats and dresses of Union Baptist’s congregation. The sermons there were intended to persuade, rather than move. I listened and after four years I heard something I didn’t like.

It was a sermon on Mary and Martha. The minister was telling about how it’s this holiday and Martha is getting the house ready and Mary is sitting outside listening to this itinerant preacher and not helping out. Martha is annoyed, goes out to get Mary (guests are coming, stuff needs to get done!) and is reproached by the itinerant preacher (Jesus). The minister goes on to talk about how we have to recognize when grace is at the door, blah, blah, blah. But I’m stuck on this whole incident.

I’m an older sister. I know what it’s like to feel responsible for things. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re the only one paying attention. Why couldn’t Jesus see that? Why couldn’t he see that she was only doing what she thought was right? Where’s the compassion for her?

I thought, “That’s not fair.” And I decided not to go back to church. I told my more religious grandmother I didn’t believe any longer. She told me to read the bible. I did. I still didn’t believe.  I still don’t.

I became a rational atheist some time long after that. That means that I’ve thought about why there’s no good evidence for a deity or deities. This beautiful universe arises from natural forces, not supernatural ones. It wasn’t made for one species on one small planet out in the cosmic boonies. That’s as it should be.

But the start of my atheism was an impulse to fairness, a good beginning all around.

* The title? It’s a gospel song, a really good one.

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9 Responses to “How I Got Over*”

  1. Chelsea February 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Very interesting story! I left religion on grounds of “fairness” as well, namely the sexism and homophobia and policing of sexual acts in the Bible really bothered me. It seemed like maybe a bunch of straight men had made it all up so that they could do whatever they wanted. So I left because it made me mad, and I didn’t want to live like that. I put more thought into it later, but that was the beginning of the end.
    I think since most atheists are fairly rational people, many don’t realise how powerful those emotionally driven deconversions can be. After all, the Bible is no model for any kind of decent morality and your story is a perfect example of that. Thanks for sharing.

  2. slpierce February 12, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    I was born pretty much agnostic already, into a fairly non-religious family (I was surprised to learn how devout an aunt was at her funeral, because no one in my family ever talked about God or going to church). Coming from that background of religion not being a thing at all, it’s always very interesting to me to hear these kinds of stories, where people went to church because that’s what was done, and then had a bit of a wake-up moment. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Autismum February 12, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    My story’s similar too. I was brought up as Catholic and I remember one Sunday, I think I was about 13 or 14, the priest was using the homily to implore lay people to volunteer to distribute communion at high Mass. He then added something like, “anyone can do this service to God. Obviously, if you’ve got a criminal record you need not apply.” For a creed that has confession as a sacrement and believes in penance and atonement this statement just seemed so contradictory and really struck me.

  4. Mon Zni February 13, 2012 at 10:32 am #

    Hah, as an oldest sister, I have always completely hated that story as well!

    • Renee Perry February 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      I know, right? When you think about all the horrible stuff that’s in the Bible, all the improbable, violent, and just plain nutty material, this is really pretty minor. But it’s the littlest things sometimes.

      • Mon Zni February 14, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

        The violent/nutty/improbable didn’t bother me so much because it WAS all those things. Like a graphic movie– it’s just a movie, right? Bad, awful, whatever, but dismissable, because its not likely to happen in real life.

        But when its a slice of real life, and she’s being chastised because she was responsible and concerned about her guests??? Yeah, I call BS.

  5. JJS February 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    I always loved Martha, and found Mary a bit histrionic. : )

    And I love this post. beautiful writing, and as others have said, a lovely glimpse into one of those moments. For me (also in a high Episcopalian setting, but with a great Rector who was willing to argue endlessly with me – but always respect where I ended up), the first flash-point was discovering the Council of Nicaea. It’s all politics, I railed, at a precocious and outraged 8 or 9 years old. Jesus wasn’t the son of god, he was pronounced Messiah like 300 years later! That doesn’t even make sense! The Jews agree with you, he answered calmly, stymieing me completely, since I was also half-Jewish, and had no idea at that point what any of this meant to me personally. Or didn’t.

    Actually, come to think of it, if he’d been more self-righteous and less roomy about things, I would have got over sooner, I bet. : )

  6. wanderingatheist February 25, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    I LOVED this post. I wish that there were a button for LOVE instead of like. This was one of the simplest, and best posts about Atheism I have come across in a very long time. My hat is off to you.

  7. wanderingatheist February 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    Reblogged this on Wandering Atheist and commented:
    I absolutely loved this post. A small share for my small amount of readers.

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